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‘The Vagina Monologues’ Becomes Global V-Day Movement That Encourages Women

“For me I grew up never saying the word vagina in my home, and I was told you can’t show your boobs, society makes you feel shame that our bodies are dirty - a lot of women feel like they are second class citizens,”

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“But then I reminded myself, yes this is provocative, but this is about sexual liberation and understanding women’s right to know about their bodies,” said Phoo. Pixabay

Before 22-year-old Phoo Myat Thwe stepped on stage last night to read a monologue in downtown Yangon, her hands went cold.

“I suddenly didn’t know if I could do it – utter moans of sexual pleasure on stage,” said Phoo, who read the story ‘The woman who loved to make vaginas happy,’ exploring women’s pleasure.

“But then I reminded myself, yes this is provocative, but this is about sexual liberation and understanding women’s right to know about their bodies,” said Phoo.

This week was the first time the feminist play ‘The Vagina Monologues’ was performed in Burmese in public.

Hoots of laughter erupted, jaws dropped and all eyes were glued to a small black stage on a rooftop in Yangon, as Myanmar women of all ages took to the stage to read stories that explored the taboo issues of menstruation, consent, sex work and reproduction.

The play was written in 1994 by American playwright and activist Eve Ensler, after she interviewed women of different ages, races and sexualities. It became an instant hit.

“For me I grew up never saying the word vagina in my home, and I was told you can’t show your boobs, society makes you feel shame that our bodies are dirty – a lot of women feel like they are second class citizens,” said Phoo, who is an art writer when she’s not on stage. “It’s vaginal liberation, it discusses vaginas in a way that we normally wouldn’t speak about them.”

Just a play?

The monologues aim to give a voice to women beyond the barriers of race or religion.

Growing up in conflict-ridden Meiktila, Pyay Oo May told the audience at Tuesday night’s opening performance that she was inspired to perform on stage as she has experienced discrimination from a young age.

When authorites came to impose a fine because her all female family couldn’t volunteer anyone to join the rotational security watch duty in their village, they made loud jokes, so that others in the neighborhood could hear. “It was a kind of trauma,” she said.

Although many of the monologues are comical, some explore difficult and harrowing experiences, such as rape during the Bosnian war in the monologue, ‘My Vagina was My village.’

Pyay Oo May said this was the hardest story to listen to. “It was very painful, I feel the girl [in the monologue] is hopeless and [has] lost everything — she is physically alive, but psychologically dead,” she said.

Women react at a Burmese language performance of "The Vagina Monologues,' in Yangon, Myanmar.
Women react at a Burmese language performance of “The Vagina Monologues,’ in Yangon, Myanmar. (VOA)

A global V-Day movement

In Myanmar, rape has been used as a weapon of war recorded by many women’s rights groups across the country. Women’s rights groups such as the Karen Women’s Organization have documented these abuses and called for an end to military impunity for abuses committed against all women – Karen, Kachin, Shan and Rohingya.

The Vagina Monologues has become a global V-Day movement that encourages women around the world to perform the monologues as a benefit performance to raise funds and consciousness about ending violence against women.

This year, the funds in Myanmar will go to two groups raising women’s rights in ethnic areas; The Karen Women’s Organization and Ninu Women, a group that supports Chin women fighting for equal inheritance rights for women and an end to bride prices.

When asked for her thoughts on the show, founder of Ninu Women, Mae Len Nei Cer, said: “Only one word – revolution!”

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When I do trainings there is so much people don’t know, they think menstrual blood is dirty and that women can’t get pregnant if they don’t have an orgasm.” Pixabay

Giving a voice to all women

Last year, over $3,500 were raised for Strongflowers Sexuality Education from the performances when it was performed in English for the first time.

Strongflowers founderDR Thet Su Htwe said she was at first scared to speak on stage about her work. “For me the word vagina is too sensitive in our society, even if it is in English,” she said.

But after reflecting on the education gap about sexual and reproductive health across the country, she decided she would do it. “When I do trainings there is so much people don’t know, they think menstrual blood is dirty and that women can’t get pregnant if they don’t have an orgasm.”

Translation challenges

But choosing a word in Burmese as the translation for vagina wasn’t that straight-forward.

Each performer translated the monologue themselves or worked in a team. Phoo said it was challenging to choose a word that captured the tone in Burmese in conservative Buddhist Myanmar.

She chose ‘a-sae’ for the clitoris, ‘a-phote’ for vagina because men usually use them in a sexual way, but she wanted to take back ownership of the word and bring a positive energy to it. Usually women use a polite phrase of ‘Main-ma-koe’ which translates as women’s body, but Phoo wanted to choose some more striking words.

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Another performer, Aye Nilar Kyaw, said her friends are too shy to talk about vaginas, so she hopes “if people from Myanmar come here, and even if they learn the word vagina tonight, I am happy with that.”

Feminist Activist Nandar, producer of The Vagina Monologues in Yangon, said she hopes the stories will reconnect women with their bodies to feel proud.

“For me, it’s an important reminder for Myanmar society to respect women’s bodies and listen to their stories, we need to start a conversation,” she said. (VOA)

Next Story

Rakhine Villagers Flee to Temples when Military Unit Conducted Door-to-Door Searches for Rebel Ethnic Soldiers

The search operation along with some shooting incidents by government soldiers caused more than 500 local residents to take sanctuary on the grounds of Aung Mingalar Monastery, while more than 2,000 sought safety inside the Shwe Phaung Tin Monastery compound

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Myanmar villagers who fled their communities when government soldiers conducted door-to-door searches for members of an ethnic armed group take shelter in Aung Mingalar Monastery in Mrauk-U township, western Myanmar's Rakhine state, March 20, 2019. RFA

Thousands of fearful villagers have fled communities in Myanmar’s war-ravaged Rakhine state, where a Myanmar military unit has been conducting door-to-door searches for rebel ethnic soldiers, residents of the affected villages said Wednesday.

The searches for Arakan Army (AA) troops took place all day in Myo Chaung and Pan Myaung villages on the border between Mrauk-U and Minbya townships in the northern part of the state where hostilities between the two militaries have escalate since late last year, they said.

“Yesterday was really bad,” said Kyaw Myint, a resident of Pan Myaung village. “They [government soldiers] started from Myo Chaung village with their search [for AA fighters] and reached the edge of Pan Myaung village. The government soldiers changed to civilian clothing and entered the village firing their guns. All the villagers ran for their lives.”

The search operation along with some shooting incidents by government soldiers caused more than 500 local residents to take sanctuary on the grounds of Aung Mingalar Monastery, while more than 2,000 sought safety inside the Shwe Phaung Tin Monastery compound, they said.

“An IDP [internally displaced persons] camp has been opened in Shwe Phaung Tin monastery compound, Kyaw Myint said. “It’s already harboring a large number of people.”

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“Yesterday was really bad,” said Kyaw Myint, a resident of Pan Myaung village. Wikimedia

When Myanmar soldiers entered villagers’ homes, they beat some, detained others, and stripped more then 130 of them of their shirts and made them stay outside in the burning sun, said Abbot Pyinnyar Wontha of Shwe Phaung Tin monastery. He said he does not know how long the monastery can host the IDPs.

“Then they asked where the AA soldiers were located,” he said. “Now the villagers are scared of the soldiers and have fled their homes.”

During the search, Myanmar soldiers took away four villagers — Khin Maung, 30, and Kyaw Aye Maung, 25 from Myo Chaung village and Soe Win Naing, 22, and Maung Myint Hlaing, age estimated to be about 30, from Ywa Thit ward — for supposedly having connections to the AA, residents and family members said.

“They took two villagers from Myo Chaung village and two from Ywa Thit ward,” Kyaw Myint said. “We haven’t heard anything from them since.”

Kyaw Kyaw Hla from Aung Mingalar Monastery said the government troops fired indiscriminately at the villagers.

“The soldiers entered the villages and did whatever they wanted,” he said. They fired their guns at random and apprehended the villagers for questioning. They caused so much panic.”

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The search operation along with some shooting incidents by government soldiers caused more than 500 local residents to take sanctuary on the grounds of Aung Mingalar Monastery. Wikimedia

The Myanmar Army views Rakhine villagers as AA sympathizers, Kyaw Kyaw Hla said.

“So, they brutally questioned the villagers if they found them in the village,” he said. “They got angrier if they were not in the village. They said they would torch the houses if nobody was found in the village.”

The AA, a Buddhist Rakhine military fighting for autonomy in the state, was branded a terrorist organization by the Myanmar government after it carried out deadly attacks on police outposts in the state early this year, leaving 13 dead. A similar assault on another police outpost in early March killed nine officers and wounded two others.

RFA’s Myanmar Service was unable to reach Colonel Win Zaw Oo, commander of the Western Regional Military Command to confirm the arrests.

RFA was also unable to contact AA spokesman Khine Thukha to confirm if AA members were hiding in villages on the border between Minbya and Mrauk-U townships.

Meanwhile, the influx of residents of Pan Myaung and Myo Chaung villages who have left their homes has stretched the two monasteries housing them to their limits.

Abbot Pyinnyar Wontha said he does not know how long the Shwe Phaung Tin monastery can host the IDPs.

“We requested that they go back home in one or two days, but their numbers have swelled to over 2,000 since yesterday,” he said.

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Villagers look at an unexploded rocket from fighting between the Myanmar military and Arakan Army in Mrauk-U township, western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, March 16, 2019. Credit: AFP. RFA

Mrauk-U villagers still missing

One month has passed since the families of six people in Mrauk-U township were detained by the Myanmar military during clashes with the AA, and haven’t been heard from since.

Maung Win Sein, 35; Aye Thein, 33; Maung Shwe Soe, 29, from Thar-Zi village; Sein Thar Kyaw, 46, from Taung Oo village; and Hla Htun Chae, 61, from Yan-Aung-Myae village — disappeared on Feb. 19 during an intense battle in the township’s Yan Chaung region.

Myo Min Zaw, 19, from Kya-Nat-Kan village in Kyauktaw township, north of Mrauk-U, also went missing the same day. Tun Nu, the head of the township’s Taung Min Kular village also went missing during the skirmishes.

Their family members, who insist that the men have no ties to the AA, said they filed missing person reports at a local police stations but have heard nothing since.

RFA was unable to reach the police stations in Mrauk-U and Kyauktaw townships.

Oo Myint Htay, wife of Maung Win Sein, said a stranger with a mixed Myanmar-Rakhine accent answered her husband’s cell phone when she called his number.

“He told me not to call him if it’s nothing urgent,” she said. “With all the fighting going on, I was very worried because it was not my husband answering the phone and a stranger was answering it. I called the second time but no one answered. Since then, the phone has been turned off so it can’t receive calls anymore.”

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Their family members, who insist that the men have no ties to the AA, said they filed missing person reports at a local police stations but have heard nothing since. RFA

Dar Sein, wife of Hla Htun Chae from Yan Aung Pyin village, said her husband was arrested by the Myanmar military’s 22nd Division.

When she went to the army compound to inquire about her husband after he didn’t come home from cattle herding, she found him being tied up, she said.

“They tied my husband up,” she said. “When I got there, my husband Hla Htun Chae asked me to redo his sarong.”

After a while, he was summoned by the captain, and soldiers asked Dar Sein to go home.

“I said I’d go home with my husband because he has hypertension and is not in good health,” she said.

“The soldiers told me not to worry and asked me to leave,” she said. “I left and haven’t heard from my husband since then.”

‘They had done it’

Hla Htun Chae is the only one of the missing men confirmed to be detained by the military, while the fate of the remaining villagers remains unknown.

Some believe the missing men may be among three charred bodies discovered in a valley east of Yan Aung Pyin village on Feb. 21.

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“The soldiers told me not to worry and asked me to leave,” she said. “I left and haven’t heard from my husband since then.” Wikimedia

“I went there to investigate with the village head and elders of Kyar Nat Kan, but we saw only the piles of ashes,” said Sein Hla Maung, head of Yan Aung Pyin village. “It was where military troops had been stationed, so we concluded that they had done it.”

RFA could not independently confirm that the charred bodies found near Yan Aung Pyin village were the work of the government troops.

A spokesman for Myanmar military’s information committee told RFA on Feb. 25 that soldiers apprehended the local residents only as part of investigations and that they have not forcibly detailed any civilians. The AA also denied detaining them.

Tun Thar Sein, a lawmaker who represents Mrauk-U township in the Rakhine state parliament, said state officials should inform the families about their missing relatives.

“The state government is responsible for protecting its local citizens,” he said. “The government needs to give explanation to the family members of those who have been missing for a month.”

AA joins talks

The AA is one of a handful of ethnic armies fighting the government military in some of Myanmar’s ethnic minority areas.

The Myanmar government’s peace commission has invited eight organizations that have not signed a nationwide cease-fire — including the AA and its political wing, the United League of Arakan — to attend collective peace discussions for the first time on Thursday.

Some delegates from the various groups and a Chinese representative arrived in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw on Wednesday.

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Colonel Kyaw Han leads AA delegation.

After holding talks with government peace negotiators, representatives from each ethnic armed group will meet individually with representatives from the Myanmar military on Friday.

The talks are an effort to jump-start the country’s stalled peace process to end decades of armed conflict in Myanmar. (RFA)